Definitions of whiteness amid the Delta blues

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

'ARE LEBANESE white people?" we asked 71-year-old Ned Holder, a former sheriff here. "Yes," he said, "although they're real dark." How about Italian Catholics; are they white? Sure. And Jews? Yes. What about the Chinese? "Yes," he said, "they go to the white schools." And Mexicans? "They're becoming more white. More of them are getting an education."

Then what's a white person, we asked? After some confusion over the meaning of the question, he concluded that it was probably anybody "who isn't black."

Last week, I crisscrossed the Mississippi Delta, the ancient alluvial plain that defines the northwest quadrant of the poorest state in the country. I rode shotgun with anthropologist Jane Adams and photographer and journalist D. Gorton. They're a husband-and-wife team who first met here more than 40 years ago as young white civil rights activists. Now they make frequent pilgrimages to the region from their home in Carbondale, Ill., to study the nature of whiteness.

And what more perfect place to do it? For two decades, the Delta was the epicenter of the national struggle over civil rights. Sen. James O. Eastland, once labeled the "symbol of racism in America," was from Sunflower County. So was pioneering civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was jailed and beaten for trying to register to vote. The infamous White Citizens Council, the "uptown" segregationist group, was founded here in 1954. A year later, in the next county over, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten to death by two white men for allegedly propositioning a white woman. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee started its assault on Jim Crow in the early 1960s, it chose the Delta as its primary target.

The Mississippi Delta has been called "the South's South" and "Mississippi's Mississippi." Its extremes of rich soil and deep poverty, promise and disappointment, gave birth to the culture of the blues. But to Adams and Gorton, the Delta is also a regional petri dish that can be analyzed to better understand the construction of white identity in the United States. What I learned is that even in the one place where you'd expect the issue of black and white to be, well, black and white, it's a whole lot more complicated, and that it's a mistake, as Angelenos well know, to think that racial identities always obliterate ethnic and class distinctions.

Whites have been a minority in the Delta ever since it was settled in the 19th century. Even today, after decades of severe depopulation, blacks still outnumber whites in the core Delta counties by a margin of more than 2 to 1. During Reconstruction, when large numbers of former slaves started pouring into the region, the area's demographics gave them some leverage with white planters who depended on their labor. Many labor-hungry plantation owners even realized that a modicum of interracial cooperation was necessary for the sake of economic progress. Some thought it wise to refrain from the wholesale violence against blacks that was routine in the rest of the state. For a brief moment, the Delta offered more opportunity for black land ownership than any other place in the South.

But the black population boom that white farmers had heartily welcomed started to fuel fears that lopsided demographics threatened their supremacy. In 1890, the year Deltan elites signed on to a statewide campaign to disenfranchise blacks, blacks outnumbered whites 7 to 1. Simply put, white politicians realized that they couldn't hope to win fair elections in a region where blacks made up at least 80% of the potential electorate. Disenfranchisement and out-of-control land prices pushed more blacks into sharecropping. And as opportunity for economic advancement disappeared, the racial climate deteriorated.

In the national imagination, white Deltans are depicted either as paternalistic Episcopalian planters or virulently racist backcountry crackers. But Delta whites were actually a hierarchical alliance of a variety of ethnic groups. German Jews were present from the earliest American settlement. They and the Eastern European Jews who followed came to dominate the merchant class of Delta towns, eventually branching into finance and plantation ownership. In 1880 Greenville, Jews made up 25% of the population and more than two-thirds of the town's shopkeepers.

By the late 19th century, Lebanese, Italian and Chinese immigrants landed in the Delta and carved out niches in the local economy. Even as they sought to be accepted among whites, the Chinese and Lebanese often lived among and started businesses that catered to African Americans. The Chinese were officially deemed nonwhite, but by the late 1930s they began to gain entrance into white schools, churches, restaurants and clubs. Meanwhile, the Italians and Lebanese labored on the margins of whiteness. For that matter, so did poor country whites.

Mozelle Chason, a 72-year-old pastor's wife, told us that no town children even talked to her until she reached high school. The poor country kids "would bring things in our lunches that they wouldn't dream of touching," she said. Sheriff Holder has similar recollections. The "city slickers" wanted nothing to do with the "rednecks," "hicks" or "white trash." But in 1954, after the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the loose affiliation of whites congealed and hardened. It didn't just happen by itself. The "racial unity" was enforced by organizations such as the White Citizens Council, which asked all those people who sought to be considered white to stand strong against desegregation.

Adams and Gorton long wondered why the Delta did not descend into a Bosnia-like bloodbath. What they've concluded is that after one last unified stand in 1964, the cleavages in whiteness reappeared to undermine racial solidarity. While Delta Jews by and large upheld segregation, the Lebanese kept their heads down, and Italians were split. Perhaps because they had the most tenuous claim to whiteness, the Chinese anxiously tried to negotiate both sides of the racial divide. Most important, perhaps, the elites lost control of the poor whites who had always been expected to do their bidding vis-a-vis blacks.

After massive school integration in the winter of 1969, white solidarity suffered another blow as white elites put their children into private white academies and left poor white kids in the public schools. By the close of the 20th century, however, barriers to entrance in the white elite began to erode.

At Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, I met a 19-year-old half-Italian girl named Anna Brittain Antici who was a member of the elite Tri-Delta sorority at the University of Mississippi. She didn't seem to know or care that, not too long ago, her sorority wouldn't have had anything to do with a girl with her name.

But as I paid the check, I chatted with the Lebanese American owner, George P. Davis Jr., who was more acutely aware of the movable boundaries of whiteness. I asked him if he and his family were fully accepted as white folks in town.

"I hope so," he said as he smiled, "but you never know." And, as he pointed to himself and the black employees working behind him, he added: "Let's just say it's gotten better for all of us."

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